The birth of a nation and the importance of historical accuracy

Historians have found an abundance of inaccuracies and flaws in "The Birth of a Nation," begging the question: what amount of significance does this film actually hold? (Jahi Chikwendiu/Fox Searchlight via AP)

Last week, a new historical-drama hit theaters worldwide, and has garnered much attention since. “The Birth of a Nation,” set in the 1800s, tells the story of Nat Turner, leader of the deadliest slave rebellion in American history.

The film, which has been out for a week and a half, received mixed reviews in the box office. Despite the less than stellar assessment, many are still leaving the theaters calling it an “important story that needed to be told.” However, after taking a closer look at the movie, historians have found an abundance of inaccuracies and flaws in the story, begging the question: what amount of significance does this film actually hold?

Other than the slave rebellion he led in 1831, very little is known about Nat Turner’s life. As a slave, his story has very little documentation up until the point he was executed, with the only formal writings about him coming from a lawyer recounting Turner’s confession. This being said, it does not seem like there is quite enough known about Turner’s life to put into a two-hour long biographical film.

It turns out that much of what Nate Parker, the director, writer and star of the film, included in this film was fictitious. With not much to go on from Turner’s actual life, Parker was forced to fictionalize and exaggerate certain elements, adding in entire scenes that may not have actually occurred.

According to an article from the Atlantic, “Parker does editorialize, choosing to include scenes and tropes that viewers may bristle at: at least two instances of the brutalization and rape of black women and the portrayal of Turner as the constant, morally unambiguous hero”. While the fictional elements added into the film are not necessarily a poor choice by Parker, they do call into question the legitimacy of saying that the film is chiefly important for the historical story it tells.

This does not mean that the film is not significant in other ways. Being a major motion picture, and a rather publicized one at that, gives the film a certain importance as well. It highlights an event crucial to the understanding of United States history—a topic in which many are undereducated.

It serves as a social commentary on the way slaves were treated in American history, and gives a different insight into their daily lives. It shows people how our predecessors acted, and reminds viewers of why we must remember the horrors of the past.

That being said, do we want all of these messages to rely on a movie that is not even factual? Is it better for people to learn a fictionalized version of the truth instead of not learning the truth at all? Movies like “The Birth of a Nation” hold a special power in their ability to make people listen. However, if that power is not used to educate people correctly, is it really worth having at all?

Films like this can be a fantastic resource when it comes to enlightening the population, however they need to be done faithfully to history. And in this case, it does not seem as though “The Birth of a Nation” was done in such a way. Although the film has gathered claims of ‘importance,’ we cannot settle for artistic freedom and interpretations of history to inform the people of the United States about a subject as sensitive and vital to our history as slavery.

While “The Birth of a Nation” is an important film for the topics it covers, it does not do so in a way that is as historically significant as many people are claiming. It is important that we do not accept anything less than the truth when it comes to learning about our nation’s past. While literature and the cinema can play an important role in spreading our history to the American people, it is only valuable when the information is reliable and truthful.

Emma Hungaski is an opinion contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at